Letter from Thessaloniki

Athina Boutari, the wife of Yiannis Boutaris, whose wines are a household name in Greece, passed away a short time ago. One of her last wishes was to be cremated. Although the appropriate law allowing the dead to be cremated was passed only a year ago, Greece still has no facilities for similar practices. According to Byzantine Canon Law, cremation is not permitted. Therefore the Boutaris family had to transport the body to Bulgaria, where cremation has become an increasingly popular form of disposition of the deceased in the last two decades. «The number of Greeks that come here for this purpose increases every year,» says Yanislav Nedev, who directs a crematorium in Sofia. «The Church treats you as though you have committed suicide,» says Boutaris, who declares himself as devout as the majority of Greeks. «We wished to have the appropriate Orthodox rites and service of burials (Nekrosimos), but Church officials refused. Finally a priest in Nymphaio, a village in northern Greece, agreed – taking a risk at that.» However, it is a documented fact that there is nothing in the Christian religion that frowns upon cremation or requires burial. Arguing that the soul rather than the body is the important part of man, arguments in favor of burning the bodies prevail. Also there is an open discussion of environmental and ecological issues around burial. Most insist that traditional methods of burial are not environmentally friendly. «The thought of a long, slow decomposition process was unappealing to my wife. She preferred cremation for that reason,» said Boutaris in an interview. In a world in which right and wrong are increasingly and ultimately matters of opinion, and where we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves, such dilemmas seem antiquated. Sure enough, exceptions are always made. Take Maria Callas, for example, whose ashes were scattered in the Aegean Sea. There may also be circumstances where it cannot be avoided, such as epidemics, or after a pestilence or famine – yes, they are still probable. Or if it may be sought for a good cause, as some say. In Orthodoxy, of course, cremation is a rejection of the dogma of the general resurrection, and as such it is viewed harshly. Yes, dogma, a word that in its current usage tends, justly, to carry pejorative connotations. Cremation is something – our Church seems to be implying – suitable merely for witches. For it was witches who in ages past were led, alive, to the stake. If I am not mistaken – and I am not – Christopher Fry’s wry treatment of women and witchcraft, that religiously biased verse drama of the 1940s titled «The Lady’s not for Burning,» has not been performed in Greece. Pity – for it could stimulate some very effective thoughts showing how religious bigotry and economic repression are often consciously cultivated methods of spiritual and economic oppression. Because who needs cremation when the costs associated with profitable burial are so high, and the cemeteries occupying too much of our scarce land in the center of cities sell tombs for such incredible prices?